Using Marijuana for Treating Anxiety
Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.
Verywell / Cindy Chung
As more states legalize marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use, more and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although scientific research in this area is still sparse, there are anecdotal and new scientific reports of marijuana creating a calming experience that temporarily relieves symptoms of anxiety for many people.
Marijuana as Self-Medication
Anytime you take it upon yourself to use a substance to treat or cope with a medical problem or symptom, it is referred to as self-medicating. Often, self-medicating produces an immediate relief of the uncomfortable symptoms, thereby reinforcing its use.
The problem with self-medication is that even though the use of marijuana is becoming more acceptable, not enough is known about the efficacy of the drug for particular medical conditions as well as its long-term consequences.
Potential Benefits and Risks
May reduce depression in the short term
May relieve anxiety temporarily
May reduce stress
Higher levels of psychiatric disorders
Can create psychological dependence
Long-term memory loss may occur
Symptoms may increase
May develop cannabis hyperemesis syndrome
Can create increased tolerance and need
The scientific community has recently started examining the effect of cannabis on anxiety, and the verdict is that short-term benefits do exist.
Scientists at Washington State University published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in the short term. However, repeated use doesn’t seem to lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms and in some individuals may increase depression over time.
Marijuana can affect your body in many ways beyond just getting you high. The high feeling you may experience after smoking or ingesting marijuana is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.
The effects of THC do not come without risks, and long-term or frequent use has been associated several potential side effects.
Higher Levels of Psychiatric Disorders
It is possible that people who use marijuana for an extended period of time have higher levels and symptoms of depression, despite any improvements they may have seen in this regard with short-term use.
Some research has also shown that heavy use of marijuana in adolescence (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of depression and anxiety later on in a person’s life. Certain susceptible individuals are also at risk for the development of psychosis with the use of cannabis.
The central problem with using marijuana as an anxiety coping tool is that it can create a psychological dependence on the substance.
Since the effects of marijuana are fast acting, long-term behavior-based coping strategies may seem less helpful at first and may be less likely to be developed.
Long-Term Memory Loss
Several studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because THC alters one of the areas of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation. It also can have negative consequences on the brain’s motivation system.
Increase in Symptoms
THC can raise your heart rate, which, if you have anxiety, may make you feel even more anxious. Using too much marijuana can also make you feel scared or paranoid.
In some cases, marijuana can also induce orthostatic hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure when standing, which can cause lightheadedness or feeling faint. Cannabis can also cause feelings of dizziness, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision, which can contribute to anxiety.
Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome
A rare consequence of frequent marijuana use, particularly with today’s more potent strains, is cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This involves cyclical nausea and vomiting.
This is paradoxical and can be difficult to diagnose, as marijuana has been used to decrease nausea and vomiting in cancer treatment. Sufferers sometimes find relief in hot baths and showers, but ultimately, abstinence from marijuana is necessary for long-term improvement.
You can develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means that the more you use it, the more you will eventually need to get the same “high” as earlier experiences.
Alternatives to Marijuana
Remember that some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful when you are confronted with something that feels threatening to you. However, when feeling anxious becomes pervasive and difficult to control, it is time to seek professional help to discuss other forms of anxiety management.
Proactive coping strategies, learned through counseling, support groups, as well as self-help books and educational websites, can create lasting change without the negative components of extended marijuana use.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy can help you determine the underlying cause of your anxiety and manage it more effectively. Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
Working with a psychotherapist to manage your anxiety will give you a better handle on your condition in the long run.
The use of certain prescription medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been firmly established as safe and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Prescription medication is also preferable to marijuana since the long-term risks have been better studied and are potentially less significant compared to long-term marijuana use. Some anti-anxiety medications are taken daily, while others are taken episodically during periods of extreme anxiety or a panic attack.
A psychiatrist or your primary care doctor can prescribe you an anti-anxiety medication, should you need one.
Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
CBD oil, a marijuana extract that is often dispersed under the tongue with a dropper, doesn’t contain THC, so it won’t give you the same mind-altering effects as marijuana. There is some beginning evidence to suggest that CBD could be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and addiction, but more clinical trials and research are needed in this area.
A Word From Verywell
Symptoms of anxiety are treatable. Studies show that psychotherapy and medication are effective for most individuals, whereas the long-term effects of self-medicating with marijuana have yet to be clearly established. If you’ve recently started experimenting with marijuana use to treat your anxiety, be sure to tell your doctor.
If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Using marijuana can provide short-term symptom relief for anxiety, but there are risks to consider. Learn more about this and longer-term options.
Will Smoking Weed Affect My Anxiety?
This article originally appeared on VICE U.K.
Weed and anxiety have always been entwined for me. My experience of getting high amounts to an unpleasantly increased heart rate, imagining that all my friends secretly think I’m a cunt and berating myself via a cacophony of second-person internal monologues. It took me a bizarrely long time to realize this was not something I enjoyed, but when I eventually did, learning to say no when passed a spliff became the greatest gift I ever gave myself.
Since I never enjoyed weed in the first place, giving it up wasn’t difficult. But many weed users experience a more conflicted relationship with the drug and their anxiety. Weed use can become a symptom, cure, and underlying condition all rolled into one. Using it might worsen your anxiety—in a larger sense—but allow you to feel better in the short-term. This creates a vicious circle in which you’re using a substance to alleviate the symptoms it causes.
WHAT DO USERS THINK?
Amy, 27, a former weed smoker who lives with anxiety, says, “Smoking weed felt like it was positively contributing to my life at the time—it made me less anxious and more at ease about doing things. But actually it was completely destructive because, without it, I would be a complete panicked mess. If I hadn’t used weed, I would have recovered from my severe anxiety period much quicker. Instead, it took me two-and-a-half years.”
It can be difficult to tell whether weed use causes anxiety, or simply exacerbates what was there already. Chris, 22, who developed a panic disorder in his teens after smoking weed habitually, says, “In hindsight, I had always been an overthinking teenager—it’s just how my mind works, and I was able to cope with that in the long-term. Smoking weed definitely made that overthinking worse, though, and more difficult to control. It made me more irrational and irritable.”
The stronger the cannabis you're smoking, the more likely you are to experience adverse side effects.